Online Learning

Fake News and Media Literacy: A Student-Driven Journey

“When you can’t distinguish between the truth and fake news, you have a very much more difficult time trying to solve some of the great issues that we face” (Amanpour, 2017).

The future of democracy rests on our students’ abilities to interpret and respond to the world around them effectively.  Media literacy stands as a crucial pillar among the myriad of objectives we hope to achieve through our formal education systems – from life skills and reading strategies to content standards and performance frameworks. Ultimately, teaching students about media literacy is about preserving institutions of freedom and self-determination around the world.

This paper aims to demonstrate the significance of news and media literacy skills in contemporary affairs and thereby underscore the value of engaging in rich, meaningful learning experiences about news literacy skills with our students.  As a case study, an example of how my students embarked on a unique media literacy instructional unit is described.  Considerations for future learning and instructional opportunities are reflected upon.  Finally, broader considerations for practitioners are offered to further enhance the study of news media literacy.

Impact and Context: Fake News Examples, Incentives, and Technology

The significance of these efforts is a crucial starting point to consider.  No matter where they are or what topic they’re studying, our students must possess the skills to reliably decipher the sea of information they find at their fingertips.  Students must carefully apply critical thinking practices in order to analyze news media content and make informed decisions accordingly. Conversely, if our students lack a robust understanding of media literacy skills, their ideas and perceptions on any number of topics can lead them toward actions that have profoundly negative effects on democratic institutions.

Consider several recent examples in the United States.  In 2012, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, fabricated claims arose within online networks and social media outlets suggesting that rogue citizens had perpetrated a fraud.  Perhaps they didn’t actually have children who attended the school or, the writers alleged, the shooting didn’t actually occur at all, but rather was a false-flag or entirely fabricated event.   Conspiracy theorists sent death threats to parents, forcing them not only to re-experience the trauma of losing a child, but also to begin fearing for their own physical safety (Berman, 2017).

More recently, when chatter within online communities falsely alleged that a pizza restaurant was also housing, “a vast child sex-trafficking ring,” one convinced reader took it upon himself to enter the restaurant with an AR-15 assault rifle to “rescue” the children.  Several shots were fired, but luckily no one was physically harmed in the event.  Upon realizing that he had been fooled, the assailant plead guilty to several crimes (Berman, 2017).

Perhaps the most prominent example in American political discourse – an issue that at the time of writing continues to be the subject of a Special Counsel investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation – is the issue of using news media to manipulate public opinion in order to influence a national election.  Indeed, compelling evidence suggests that state-sponsored actions have sought to sway readers toward one political party or another – demonstrating the importance of media literacy in sustaining democratic institutions (see Confessore and Wakabayashi, 2017; Cox, 2017; Darby, 2017; Davey-Attlee and Soares, 2017; Howard et al., 2017; and Rutenberg, 2017).

In each case outlined above, misleading and manipulative information fueled misinformed actions.  Certainly, additional examples have pervaded classroom activities during current events lessons or real-world discussions, causing teachers to address misconceptions or question assumptions of the original claim.  Berman (2017) has documented how government officials have similarly spent substantial time and energy addressing concerns and upholding confidence in bureaucratic institutions during public dialogues about false news stories.  Helping our students build deep understandings about media strategies and news literacy will hopefully limit future cases.

Unfortunately, additional context only confirms that strong incentives will continue to underwrite an endless swarm of deliberately false, so-called “fake news,” organizations, making steeper the mountain educators must help students climb.  Numerous commentators have noted how lucrative the fake news business can be.  Ohlheiser (2016) asserts that by selling ads on false content, writers can make thousands of dollars a month by pushing stories on Facebook.  Berman (2017) shares the story of a Maryland political consultant who earned $22,000 during the 2016 American presidential campaign.  At it’s height, the consultant’s website was valued at $125,000.

Davey-Attlee and Soares (2017) interviewed a young Macedonia writer using the pseudonym “Mikhail” who stated, “At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever earn in his entire life.”  These stories highlight how, particularly for writers living in developing areas around the globe, there is a strong potential for financial incentives to overcome moral or ethical considerations when producing fake news media. Mikhail, a law school dropout, stated that he was using his profits to send his younger sister to school and purchase a house. So how will Mikhail and others like him respond to increased attention to fake news and media literacy?  During his interview he noted, “My primary goal is to prepare a site like I was having before, to be ready for the next election in America.”

Technological advancements also exacerbate the trend by empowering the production of fake news.  Indeed, Joseph Cox, a cybersecurity journalist, describes assembling a digital fake news team of up to 45,000 proxy accounts on Twitter for only $100 per week (2017).  Methods to combine numerous facial images together to create a high-resolution portrait – an image of a person who doesn’t actually exist in the real world – have been fine-tuned (Shah, 2017; Karras et al., 2018).  As these digital technologies continue to advance, the authenticity of visual texts and information will come into question.  A team of engineers from the University of Washington have likewise developed a program that aligns former President Obama’s voice with lip-synced videos of him speaking, allowing them to create videos of Obama saying statements he didn’t necessarily say, using his own voice (Suwajanakorn, Seitz, and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, 2016). To an untrained eye, these videos can be extremely convincing. When it comes to contemporary digital media, the old adage that “seeing is believing” no longer applies.

Anecdotally, teachers are well aware that students are not immune to misinformation and misleading information.  Students often struggle to determine fact from fiction when reading, but a seminal study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) determined just how critical these challenges are (2016). SHEG researchers assessed a sampling of middle school, high school, and college students and came to particularly dismal results.  One extraordinary finding noted that over 80% of students failed to determine that information was an advertisement, even when the information contained a label reading “sponsored content” within it (2016).  Qualitative evidence confirmed that students believed such content was an actual news story rather than a paid advertisement. The report described student’s abilities to evaluate information as “bleak,” noting that students are “easily duped” (2016).

Even when students are able to utilize social media to access online information, their savvy in navigating social media websites often does not match their actual media literacy skills.  SHEG notes, “despite their fluency with social media, many students are unaware of basic conventions for indicating verified digital information” (Stanford History Education Group, 2016). Furthermore, such skills are not randomly distributed, but tend to be favor traditionally privileged populations.  Empirical evidence confirms that socioeconomic status can be a strong predicting factor in determining media literacy and using the internet in informed ways (Hargittai, 2010).

Experts don’t agree on whether these conditions will improve over time. A study by Pew Research Center (2017) canvassed over a thousand “technologists, scholars, practitioners, strategic thinkers, and others” about the following issue:

“The rise of “fake news” and the proliferation of doctored narratives that are spread by humans and bots online are challenging publishers and platforms. Those trying to stop the spread of false information are working to design technical and human systems that can weed it out and minimize the ways in which bots and other schemes spread lies and misinformation. The question: In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?”

Respondents then had to pick between one of the responses below:

“The information environment will improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will be IMPROVED by changes that reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”

Or, alternatively:

“The information environment will NOT improve – In the next 10 years, on balance, the information environment will NOT BE improved by changes designed to reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation online.”

The responses were split 51% to 49%, with the majority selecting that they did not expect improvements to our environment (Pew Research Center, 2017).

The examples above demonstrate the significance of media literacy.  Moving forward, more stories of misinformed actions will undoubtedly emerge. Until incentives change, the actors who are creating misleading information are here to stay.  Technological developments will only exacerbate avenues for manipulation.  And as our students already struggle to build and maintain media literacy skills, the future seems grim.  Each illustration serves to underscore the imperative nature of teaching media literacy skills.  Indeed these efforts not only benefit the private good of each individual student but also, in the longer-term, the collective, public good.

Instructional Activities: A Case Study

How ought educators respond to this environment?  How can we best-prepare students to overcome such bleak circumstances?  What instructional activities and educational experiences might we co-create to address these concerns?  What follows is one example of an instructional unit for practitioners to consider.

Introductory Activities

The following instructional unit is designed for a secondary-level English Language Arts course in the United States.  It was taught in a small-classroom setting, with a group of seven students.  We had ample access to technology, though our primary digital tool was 1:1 laptops.  I had originally planned a framework of activities aligned to various sets of learning standards used in the United States, though our objectives and experiences broadened as students took more ownership of the unit.  All in all, we focused on our media literacy project for four weeks of class time.

To begin, I utilized the term “fake news” as a hook to lure student attention.  I designed a provocative slideshow of “fake news” examples and progressed through them as my students and I discussed the perils of being tricked by misleading information.  At the conclusion of the slides, I stated that we were opening a unit about media literacy and stated several objectives.  In short, our goals were to determine what it meant to demonstrate media literacy, practice various media literacy tasks, and showcase our skills by creating a summative learning product that demonstrated high literacy skills.

Given the inherently political nature of “Fake news,” we next proceeded to discussing group expectations and mores.   I told my students that I foresaw moments when our topics would include current events and activities that would deconstruct practices of major political parties, even those they might consider themselves to be followers of.  We discussed ways to give and receive feedback that would allow them to express their views while still demonstrating respect and empathy.  I noted that we were studying this because it was both a current event as well as an important collection of skills for students to master.  We talked about how at some point we would undoubtedly have moments where they disagreed with their peers, and I asked them how we should handle those moments.  What does it look like to respectfully disagree?  What are some statements you can use to acknowledge a person’s perspective but state appropriately that your opinion differs?  How can we show that we like and respect a person even if we disagree with their ideas?  We practiced several examples where a student would be provided with information that contradicted one of their longstanding beliefs.

These conversations were crucial to the success of this unit. I was fortunate to have students of all political stripes in my class.  The diversity of perspectives enabled us to have many back-and-forth respectful conversations about politics.  One early takeaway for me was that these types of conversations don’t happen enough in schools today.

Direct Instruction

After our initial discussions, the students completed a carousel activity, which had them read a bank of articles about fake news, fact-checking, and news validity.  Instead of using the hypothetical situations we discussed in the introductory section above, our discussions now focused on real world, factual, historical events.  We reviewed evidence, including the Stanford History Education Group’s seminal study (2016), that demonstrated the extent many students lack news literacy skills.  As we discussed the resulting implications, some students were initially skeptical and perhaps overconfident in their own abilities.  But, after reading some additional examples from other articles, the class reached a verbal consensus that the recent boom of fake news was clearly a problem – both in terms of upholding journalistic integrity as well as in the demonstrated lack of student abilities. These activities established buy-in for the students.  In this way, they had agreed with and helped identify the significance and rationale for our learning.

Group Instruction & Independent Activities

To build initial background information, we began with a modified version of instructional materials designed by iCivics, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  iCivics creates a multiplicity of instructional materials and games for students, including several documents on journalism, bias, and misinformation.  These activities were traditional tools to build reading comprehension by asking students to review a selection of engaging information and then complete a brief written response activity to demonstrate their understanding of a news literacy concept.

Ultimately, I adapted these materials so we could use them briefly to build some common vocabulary about media literacy.  Additionally, in assessing student’s answers, I quickly learned where student’s preconceived ideas about certain media topics were.  As such, the iCivics materials served as a pre-assessment of student understanding, a measure of what students understood at the beginning of the unit.

Our next activity involved a mix of whole-class and independent, self-paced modules to develop news literacy skills.  I utilized Checkology, an interactive program designed by The News Literacy Project to facilitate hands-on practice activities.  Checkology includes four instructional modules which each contain a variety of videos and activities for students to complete.  The modules teach many different skills and are titled, “Filtering News and Information,” “Exercising Civic Freedoms,” “Navigating Today’s Information Landscape,” and “How to Know What to Believe,” respectively.  During this stage of instruction, my role was that of a facilitator.  I assisted students to navigate the interface of Checkology and I received invaluable qualitative data as students progressed.  Once students submitted work, I was able to provide individualized feedback by commenting on student’s answers and provide tips and tricks to student who needed assistance.  Students received these comments as notifications within the Checkology system.

At times, we completed Checkology tutorials as a group because our conversations enriched everyone’s learning.  Sometimes students completed aspects of the tutorials separately, but over time we gravitated together as everyone seemed to have similar questions as they progressed independently.  Many times, we would pause our individual work on the fly to engage in whole class discussions about the tutorials.  As students made connections between class content and the real world, our conversations often drifted into political commentary as we reflected on how news literacy and truthful, diligent reporting has meaningful consequences on citizenship and public opinion.  On more than a few moments we found ourselves reeling the conversation back to the topic of the lesson, but never did I feel like we hadn’t taken a meaningful sidetrack.  Students need practice talking about politics.  Students need assistance to engage in political conversations respectfully and to complement their arguments with evidence and reason instead of merely appealing to emotions.  If nothing else, we created a space for these conversations to happen.

Summative Assessment: The Birth of a Media Library

This was a new unit for me.  Instead of designing a final project or writing assignment I simply asked students what we should do with all of our new understandings as we approached the end of instructional activities.  Having met our initial goals of building background knowledge about what it meant to demonstrate media literacy and completing an array of practice building our news and informational literacy skills, I empowered students to create a final assessment to showcase their new skills.

One student – a kid who wasn’t even in our class but had heard about our discussions from a peer – floated the idea of creating some sort of website to list authentic, trustworthy news sources.  Another student asked if, in jest, we could also include some satirical or outright “fake news” outlets, as long as they labeled them as such.  Frankly, I thought this idea was clever and would test each student’s ability to locate and choose an appropriate source.  Nevertheless, I asked them to refine their idea.  After all, the scale and pace of digital media outlets is daunting.  A stagnant list would only be accurate and of value for a short time.

After some brainstorming, one student proposed using an RSS feed to collect articles from our approved sources.  An RSS feed pulls new articles from a source and aggregates that content alongside other sources within a standardized reader.  For example, a few students shared their favorite RSS apps, which allowed them to read updates from some of their favorite websites all in one place (the app), without having to manually open the webpage of each site.

This initial idea quickly led students down a self-driven path.  It was a moment when, as the instructor, I could feel the excitement in the room as the students recognized how they could implement their new learning into a real-world, applicable product for themselves and others.

At first, the students wanted to collect reliable news websites and aggregate their content into an RSS reader.  This would allow students to demonstrate their skills and also review the information from each source on an ongoing basis.  Regarding the satirical and “fake news” sources, students would know the source needed to be updated or removed if the feed stopped producing content, which addressed my initial concern.

But quickly we realized that there were access issues with this approach, as typically an RSS news aggregator is an individualized product, not something shared by a group of readers.  Not only did this problem highlight an initial concern, but it also raised an important question and new line of inquiry.  Students began researching how to create a public RSS feed that they could edit and others (i.e. the general public) could view on an ongoing basis.  Feedly, an RSS news aggregator and reader had recently created a “shared collections” feature that allows specific feeds to be broadcast to a public website.  This empowered my students to create folders of specific sources (i.e. their favorite blog, YouTube playlists, CNN, teen magazines, etc.) and broadcast their information all in one easy-to-find spot, which we branded as a school media library.  This product not only far-exceeded our learning goals, but it granted students with a way to extend their learning far beyond the classroom.

Students chose topics of their interest and searched far and wide across the internet to find websites and media sources about that topic.  We added trustworthy sites to specific categories of their interest (i.e. Automotive Trends, Crime News, Health & Wellness, LGBTQ*, Music, etc.) and even added some of our favorite unreliable ones to a “Satire, Fake News, & Outrage” category! We quickly built a robust library of high-quality reading sources on topics of student interest.  The students recognized the power of such a project and remained engaged throughout the process.  Numerous times, students floated category ideas and customized the project to appeal to their skills and interests.

Extension Activities

The students demonstrated their skills at effectively and accurately analyzing media sources – but their curiosity didn’t stop there.  The students wanted to share their learning with the rest of the school and include methods for other students to participate.  To make it easier to find our media library, students learned how to create short links and QR codes, which were strategically pinned to flyers and placed around the school. To allow other students to suggest media library sources, we created a digital form and embedded it within the media library website.

One student wondered aloud how we would use the media library in the future.  Aside from using it for personal reading or for finding current events articles, was there a way we could share information from the media library with others?  How could the media library foster ongoing learning and school activities? Another student interjected to ask if we could clip highlights from the media library and create a school newspaper.  As the discussion continued, we shifted the idea of a newspaper to a blog and quickly realized that a blog could be used to share media library information, but also for a whole range of other activities school-wide.  After some searching we found the EduBlogs platform through WordPress and we began designing our space together.

All in all, students had each demonstrated mastery in a variety of media literacy skills not only through practicing the Checkology modules, but also by constructing a school media library full of reliable news sources which would be automatically updated using the digital technologies of RSS and a news aggregator site.  To launch our efforts into action, the students presented the project to their peers during lunch.  They explained the purpose of each component of the project and taught their friends how to contribute to the blog and media library themselves.

Student Reflections

Before transitioning to our next unit, I asked students to briefly reflect on our experiences. Some students remarked on the plague of “fake news” in America (and across the world).  A common thread in student comments noted that so many students and adults lack common sense and have very poor skills at recognizing the authenticity of digital information, whether it be memes, infographics, or articles.  One student wrote about people on Facebook or other sites online that knowingly share false information saying, “They’re living a lie and it’s disgusting.”

Another student reflected on our process and stated, “This unit was meaningful to me because it contributed to bringing students together to do something positive.  We made a place where everyone has a voice.” A different peer replied, “The whole class was in charge and helped form everything.  It felt like we had a lot of responsibility and also more freedom to express our interests.”

Keeping The Republic: Where Do We Go From Here?

My students started with a hot topic and a small collection of supporting texts.  We paired our background knowledge with an extremely well designed series of tutorials and ongoing discussions about different media sources.  Throughout our time we maintained a respectful ongoing dialogue about the political implications of media literacy. Eventually we practiced our new skills by building a digital media library and school blog, all the while learning about tech tools that enhanced our communication and showcased our learning in a clean, organized manner. Students controlled the pace of this entire unit and chose the instructional activities and outcomes of over half of it. Suffice it to say I was extremely proud to step back and reflect on what the students had created and how far we had come.

But this example is only one story of how educators – and the broader public – can respond to these developments.  What steps can we take to build news literacy skills and limit the spread of “fake news” media?

On the classroom front, recent findings suggest that teachers are utilizing outside resources and new-era, digitally-rich texts to create new curriculums about news literacy (Jacobson, 2017).  Stanford History Education Group researchers likewise plan to create a series of videos to, “mobilize educators, policymakers, and others to address this threat to democracy” (2016).  In Italian schools, the Ministry of Education is currently implementing a collaborative initiative with Google and Facebook to train students in 8,000 high schools about news literacy (Horowitz, 2017).  Commenting on this effort, Laura Bononcini, chief of public policy for Facebook stated that, “education and media literacy are a crucial part of our effort to curb the spread of false news, and collaboration with schools is pivotal” (2017).

Discussing general practices for educators, Miller (2016) shares several important insights.  Initially, it is crucial to confront biases and acknowledge how those beliefs influence our perceptions.  Part of teaching news literacy involves deconstructing preconceived notions that students hold.  Miller also notes the value in teaching students to approach news with skepticism rather than cynicism.  Entering these learning activities with a proper mindset is necessary, especially for young students.  Finally, he highlights the importance of teaching students about the role of algorithms in limiting access to information.  In other words, an algorithm will sometimes restrict a student’s perspective by steering content that reinforces their biases.  Instead, Miller suggests methods for enriching and widening our “information diets” (2016).

The wider community beyond the classroom also plays a role in combating fake news and bolstering media literacy.  In the Pew Research Center study referenced above, though slightly less than half of the experts believe the “fake news” situation will improve, researchers provided a notable summary of their reasoning, stating that:

“It is…human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse” (2017).

Whenever possible, educators should work to support these efforts.

Indeed, progress is already underway.  In early 2017, investors filed a shareholder resolution with Facebook asking the company to address fake news articles on the site (Sterne, 2017).  Soon thereafter, Facebook introduced a new button for users to push that would provide additional contextual information on news articles (Anker et al., 2017).  Though initial observations question the benefit of such a button or cautionary label, the strategy is a trend in the right direction nonetheless (see Pennycook and Rand, 2017).  Following this pressure, executives from both Facebook and Twitter testified before Congress on the subject of foreign governments using those platforms to display manipulative media, and Facebook submitted over 3,000 ads to the United States Congress that were linked to or paid for by a foreign government (Shane and Isaac, 2017; Kang et al., 2017).  Speculation has also rose regarding potential changes regarding political ad disclosure laws during national elections in the United States (Fischer, 2017).

These efforts are crucial to the continuation of democratic ideals around the world.  Changes to benefit media literacy and reduce manipulative information are necessary at all levels of public life – from our laws and procedures to our classroom activities.  In my time working on this subject with youth it has become abundantly clear that students don’t enjoy being fooled.  Upon realizing their apparent misconceptions, students were highly motivated to engage in meaningful classroom activities that had resounding benefits beyond their immediate private gains.  Educators and policymakers would be wise to follow their example.



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Anker, A., Su, S., and Smith, J. (2017), “News feed fyi: New test to provide context about articles”, Facebook Newsroom, available at: (Accessed 5 November 2017).

Amanpour, C. (2017), “How to seek truth in the era of fake news”, published interview proceedings of TEDGlobal>NYC, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Berman. N. (2017), “The victims of fake news”, Columbia Journalism Review, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Confessore, N and Wakabayashio, D. (2017), “How Russia harvested American rage to reshape U.S. politics”, The New York Times, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Cox, J. (2017), “I bought a Russian bot army for under $100”, The Daily Beast, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Darby, L. (2017), “Russian trolls didn’t just flood facebook with fake news – They faked accounts of real organizations”,, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Davey-Attlee, F. and Soares, I. (2017), “The fake news machine”, CNN Money Interactive, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Fischer, S. (2017), “Scoop: The FEC’s plans for political ad disclosures”, Axios, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Hargittai, E. (2010), Digital na(t)ives? Variation in internet skills and uses among members of the “net generation”, Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 80, No. 1, pp. 92-113.

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Howard, P., Kollanyi, B., Bradshaw, S., and Neudert, L.M. (2017), “Social media news and political information during the US election: Was polarizing content concentrated in swing states?” Data Memo, Project on Computational Propaganda, Oxford, U.K., available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Jacobson, L. (2017), “Schools fight spread of ‘fake news’ through news literacy lessons”, Education Dive, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Kang, C., Fandos, N., and Isaac, M. (2017), “Tech executives are contrite about election meddling, but make few promises on capitol hill”, The New York Times, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Karras, T., Aila, T., Laine, S., and Lehtinen, J. (2018), “Progressive growing of GANs for improved quality, stability, and variation”, proposed conference paper in International Conference on Learning Representations in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, 2018, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Miller, A. (2016), “Confronting confirmation bias: Giving truth a fighting change in the information age”, Social Education, Vol 80 No. 5, pp. 276-279.

Ohlheiser, A. (2016), “This is how Facebook’s fake-news writers make money”, The Washington Post, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Pennycook, G. and Rand, D.G. (2017), “Assessing the effect of ‘disputed’ warnings and source salience on perceptions of fake news accuracy”, Working Paper, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

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Shah, S. (2017), “Neural network creates photo-realistic images of fake celebs”, Engadget, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

Shane, S. and Isaac, M. (2017). “Facebook to turn over russian-linked ads to congress”, The New York Times, available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).

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Suwajanakorn, S., Seitz, S., and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, I. (2017), “Synthesizing Obama: Learning lip sync from audio”, ACM Transactions on Graphics, Vol. 36, No. 5, Article 95. available at: (accessed 5 November 2017).


Categories: Education in the 21st Century, News & Current Issues, Online Learning, Reform Policies, Writing Samples | Leave a comment

Five Ways Common Curriculum Keeps Me Organized

Over the past two years I’ve had the distinctly gratifying and simultaneously terrifying experience of beginning my teaching career. As teachers, we begin our journey by assessing our learners and defining high growth targets, developing a robust arsenal of standardized less on plans and technology-aligned learning experiences, and creatively differentiating those activities for each of our students. Molding all of those goals into a comprehensive year-long curriculum is another challenge entirely. As it is with so many new educators, within weeks of beginning the school year I found myself lost in the abyss of faculty meetings, library resources, and professional development seminars – to say nothing of parent calls and meetings, progress monitoring, and the special education annual review

Common Curriculum rescued me from uncharted territory. I had encountered CC early last summer buried in some random blog post or Pinterest board and, after giving it a shot this past year, I’m convinced I’ll never plan any other way. Common Curriculum focuses on the tactics of teaching: daily lesson plans. Scope and sequence mapping, unit plans, and inquiries obviously have their place in planning, but when it comes to actually crafting the minute-by-minute workings of the classroom, I found Common Curriculum to be invaluable to my own organization and my growth as an educator.

Here are five straightforward reasons you should consider getting an account:

1) It’s easy. Their website’s interface is simple and easy to navigate. After quickly setting up a Planbook you’re able to start tinkering around within a few minutes. Once you begin, you’ll notice that you can shift assignments around throughout your lesson, move them to a new day, or delete them entirely. If something comes up and you need to shift plans to the next day, CC allows it with the click of a button. Each day is totally customizable – including which classes you teach in a given day and the activities you plan for each period or block – meaning that you can implement your own style when designing your lessons. Creating these lessons is literally as easy as typing on your keyboard, and the web-based platform automatically saves your progress as you go. Upload files (just like you would to an email) and now your materials or resources are saved as well! Common Curriculum also links to my Google Drive, and seamlessly uploads materials I had already organized.

2) It’s safe. In addition to having my progress saved automatically, it’s highly comforting knowing that my curriculum isn’t living on a thumb drive or school-based software that can be discontinued next year if our district doesn’t renew our subscription. Like any geek, I live in a constant state of fear and anxiety, dwelling over whether or not my files are safe and accessible. Using Common Curriculum allowed me to save my work on the cloud, export it as an Adobe .pdf file, and still have it backed up on CC’s interface. My materials aren’t going to disappear from being lost, broken, or unsubscribed from. Relatedly, my lessons are saved so I can easily reference them next year, which also means next year I’ll be adapting my plans instead of starting from square one again. Some teachers have filing cabinets and drawers full of old handouts and workbooks that they’ve used (which is totally fine), but as a new teacher I have to admit that having every resource I used last year safely linked on a single document is pretty convenient.

3) It prompts me to use best-practices. When you begin setting up your Planbook you’ll be prompted to choose a lesson plan template for each course you teach. Some people like the Minimal template with the quick “Agenda” and “Notes” sections. Some people like the Basic or the 5E templates that each give a little more guidance when designing. Both of those are fine, and admittedly many of my own plans ended up utilizing the Minimal template, but what really intrigued me (and pushed me to write better lessons) was the Extra Detailed template. In this case the detailed sections include: Objectives, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Materials, Intro to New Materials, Direct Instruction, Guided Practice, Independent Practice, Extension, Assessment, Homework, Accommodations & Modifications, and Reflections. Obviously every lesson may not include all of those sections (CC allows you to delete, combine, substitute, or reorder them as necessary), but I found that something as simple as just having them listed as a rough guide reminded me to think about each one as I planned the daily activities of the classroom. My teaching improved because of this template.

4) It links to about a billion sets of standards. As I mapped out the skills, strategies, and content I wanted my students to explore, Common Curriculum helped me design my instruction to the specific standards aligned to my course. I teach social studies, so for me that meant the New York State Social Studies Framework’s Key Ideas, Conceptual Understandings, and Content Specifications, the New York State Common Core Learning Standards for Literacy in Social Studies, the National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework, as well as frameworks and standards to reference from the National Center for History in the Schools, the National Council on Economic Education, the National Standards for Arts Education, and the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy. All of these are available on Common Curriculum to reference and link to your daily lessons.  With a Pro or Schools account, teachers can even utilize a standards tracker to map course outcomes over the course of the school year.

5) It’s digitally accessible to my students. I can seamlessly export all of this to my students’ iPads, the classroom SMARTBoard, or any computer/laptop. As a Pro user, I’ve linked my lessons to a website that I share with my students. I can choose which sections are visible to them, allowing them to browse the lesson’s materials independently. If a student is late to class or misses school, they can review the materials on their own time using this resource. I can link assignments online for students to complete, whether they’re printed handouts, webquests, or simple instructions for classwork. This also allows students to access a visible agenda for class, even previewing future classes if I mark them as visible in the CC interface. Not only does this lead toward a paperless classroom – it prompts students to seek and utilize digital resources, a timeless and necessary skill to build in the digital age.


Categories: Classroom Management, Common Core, Dif-abilities, Education in the 21st Century, Online Learning, Teaching Resources, Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Apps for Engagement

Originally printed in the September ’14 issue of Educational Leadership, found here (subscription required):



Categories: Classroom Management, Education in the 21st Century, Online Learning, Teaching Resources | Leave a comment

Seven Characteristics of a Digitally Competent Teacher


Full article here:

Categories: Education in the 21st Century, Online Learning, Room Decoration & Organization, Teaching Resources | Leave a comment

What Didn’t Happen in Edtech in 2013 | EdSurge News

Strong summary of edtech happenings:

Four CEOs share thoughts on what we can do better in 2014

Categories: Common Core, Education in the 21st Century, News & Current Issues, Online Learning, Reform Policies | Leave a comment

Bloom’s Taxonomy meets the internet

This is an extraordinary site that aligns layers of Bloom’s Taxonomy to digital websites and apps for students to use.

Browse the site:

Categories: Online Learning, Teaching Resources | Leave a comment

Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education: The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Nicholas M. Lind

December 14, 2013

Policy Analysis written for course EDU413 – Contemporary Issues in Educational Policy at the Margaret Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester


Online and Blended Learning Policies in K-12 Education:

The Case of Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP)

Policy Overview


            According to some educators, online and blended learning initiatives currently taking place in K-12 schools across the country offer a prospective glimpse into an inevitable future of learning.  As the availability of technological resources in districts continues to grow – from internet connectivity and computer access to smart phones and tablet apps – students increasingly possess the opportunity to shift their education to new digital technologies which empower them with revolutionary learning capabilities.

Online and blended learning programs afford educators, learners, citizens, and policymakers alike with various luxuries.  These incentives have driven the online and blended learning movement toward new educational paradigms.  To be sure, as with many new educational policies, these transitions have been viewed unfavorably by some in the educational community and have certainly involved costs for stakeholders to consider.  These new benefits and concerns will be reviewed below, specifically focusing on Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) as an educational policy case study.

Several observations form the basis of this analysis.  Although Florida’s Virtual School continues to be recognized as a leading K-12 online learning institution, similar initiatives in Arizona, Minnesota, and Utah are moving in similar paths (Watson et. al., 2013).  Due to the recent development and subsequently limited supply of literature on these programs, this review will concentrate on the learning scene in Utah while drawing from broader literature on the topic.

Second, rather than placing these initiatives within the matrices of Race to the Top, Common Core, and teacher evaluation policies taking shape across the country, the scope of this analysis is limited to the development of online and blended programs independent of alternative educational policies.  Similarly, although the Statewide Online Education Program stems from a school choice approach of educational reform, the synthesizing of seminal research on school choice will not be pursued by this analysis.  Instead, this report will investigate the policy process for SOEP in Utah and will describe the design and goals of the program according to the academic literature on online and blended learning programs.  To be sure, school choice – and in SOEP’s case course choice – will perhaps have significant effects both on student achievement and on standing educational institutions in Utah, especially when compounded by other state and federal policies.  But these outcomes will be more recognizable and measurable in the longer term, once SOEP has been fully implemented.

Defining Digital Learning Terms

Before proceeding, it is appropriate to define what constitutes “online” and “blended” learning programs.  The International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), the leading policy organization devoted to blended and online learning opportunities, defines these terms in the following ways:

“Blended learning (also hybrid learning): Learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and is based on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course” (Wicks, 2010, p. 48).

“Online learning (also cyber learning, elearning, and virtual learning): Education in which instruction and content are delivered primarily over the Internet; online learning is a form of distance learning.  The term does not include printer-based correspondence education, broadcast television, or radio, videocassettes, and stand-alone educational software programs that do not have a significant internet-based instructional component” (Wicks, 2010, p.48).

Whereas blended learning programs deliver instruction within traditional brick-and-mortar settings and supplement with internet-based activities and assignments, online programs deliver the entirety of the learning process digitally.  And while both models depend highly on strong communication between teachers and students, instructors of blended courses effectively tailor the balance between the amount of time spent in traditional settings with time spent online specifically according to the needs of their students.  Although their teaching style may inform the initial balance between in-class and online activities, blended programs allow teachers to respond to their students’ progress and provide in-class support as necessary (Digital Learning Now!, 2010).

Internet-based modes of learning are often delivered through a Learning Management System.  Wicks (2010) describes these systems as software programs that provide a platform to create, edit, share, communicate, and assess course content.  Instructors can upload course materials onto the platform for students to access, or can simply provide links to media available on the internet.  Students can communicate with each other via these systems and often submit assignments for instructors to review.  In most cases, students are able to log on to these systems using a username and password, which allows them to access the course materials from anywhere with internet access.

Policy Problem & Issue Definition

Benefits of Online & Blended Learning

Online and blended learning models are promoted essentially for their potential to increase equitable access to high-quality educational services.  This principle transcends various dimensions of educational policymaking including: challenging the norms of traditional teaching and learning, adapting the curricular and technical structures of education, and providing constituents – both voters and learners – with equitable and democratic schools.

Challenging traditional teaching and learning. Anthony Picciano, Professor at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, CUNY, has served as principle investigator on multiple analyses of online and blended learning programs nationwide.  Picciano et. al (2011b) found that, “high schools in Illinois and nationally use a number of external providers rather than develop[ing] courses in house” (p.1).  This separation of the design of curriculum from the delivery of instruction aims to ensure high-quality learning materials for all students, but to be sure depends entirely on the quality of coursework a third party organization provides.  Ideally, only high-quality course providers would be authorized by state departments of education to supply materials.  But this is not always the case, as is evident from recent controversy and outcries in New York regarding low quality Common Core modules widely purchased by school districts.

Online learning programs allow students to access certified teachers delivering subjects who wouldn’t be available for face-to-face instruction (Picciano et. al. 2011b). Personally speaking, I graduated from a rural high school that didn’t offer any Advanced Placement courses and only offered Spanish as a foreign language.  I would have kindly greeted any opportunity for more diverse course offerings.  Consequently, online programs provide teachers with career options to reach more students in more productive ways.  Highly effective teachers can be reached across geographic areas, perhaps even facilitating online courses from their own homes (Lips, 2010).  Downes (2004) also suggests that online and blended programs offer students an opportunity to learn and communicate using blogs, which encourage formative writing exercises and personalize writing in a way that directly increases its relevance to students.

These new programs are also uniquely positioned to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners.  Muller (2009) explains how state-level virtual K-12 public school programs have developed ways to offer accommodations, assistive technology, and related services to students with disabilities according to their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).  Muller also notes that at-risk students who are prone to dropout, incarcerated students, students who are homebound, and migrant youth are all empowered by online learning opportunities (p. 3).  While these programs require innovative solutions, states are continually expanding online and blended opportunities in ways to benefit diverse learners.

            Adapting curricular and technical structures. Online learning programs introduce diverse opportunities for schools and students.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) noted that, “offering courses not otherwise available [such as]…Advanced Placement or college-level courses,” attracted school administrators to explore online and blended models (p. 128).  The flexible format of online coursework also decreased scheduling conflicts for students seeking to meet graduation requirements.  Students who previously failed a course could retake it through an online program to receive credit promptly rather than waiting an entire year for the course to be offered again.  Similarly, courses that would previously have been overscheduled – inappropriately increasing the student-faculty ratio beyond best-practices for effective class sizes – now could be offered through online or blended programs in order to accommodate schools with, “growing populations and limited space” (Picciano et. al., 2011a, p.129).

            Providing democratic education.  Providing freedom to students who seek to choose specific courses is an important driver of online and blended programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) explained that in addition to offering additional courses, online and blended programs individualize educational services to best-fit the needs of students.  For example, some district administrators reported that research pointing to the pedagogical strength of online programs as well as testimonies of students’ preference of online coursework played a role in developing programs within their schools.  Lips (2010) writes that instead of grouping students according to their age, online learning can group them by achievement level or learning style.  Additionally, students can learn at their own pace, providing advanced students with an infrastructure to accelerate ahead and allowing struggling students to receive ample support in order to reach total proficiency at their own pace rather than learn “enough” to pass a course while still lacking proficiency.

iNACOL (2009) notes that quality mathematics and science teachers, who are critical to the nation’s future economic competitiveness, are in short supply in many districts.  Online programs can eliminate the geographical discrepancies currently experienced across the country.  They also point out that, “online college prep, Advanced Placement, credit recovery, and dropout prevention programs ensure that more American students are ready for college” (p. 1).  These opportunities can decrease the cost of college for students by minimizing remedial coursework necessary in their first several semesters or by covering coursework requirements altogether.  Furthermore, research has shown that online and blended learning environments, “can produce significant cost savings for states and districts” (Bailey et. al., 2013c)

These programs additionally have more practical benefits.  Online courses provide hands-on training using technology and computers, widely perceived as an essential twenty-first century literacy skill (iNACOL, 2009).  Also, if local colleges are authorized as course providers, students may build linkages in a way that encourages future college attendance (Picciano et. al., 2011a).  Students who take courses online within a flexible time frame can now use their time within traditional school settings – roughly speaking, between 7am and 4 pm – in ways that better-fit their personal interests.  Since they’re taking a required science course online, perhaps their schedule allows them to take an elective arts or music course in school or perhaps they use their new flexible time to join an organization like student council or join a new sport (Lips, 2010).

Finally, administrators noted that the financial benefits to offering blended and online courses – such as offering credit recovery opportunities through an online program rather than offering a whole course for a few students – enticed them to begin programs.  In this way, online and blended programs benefit student achievement, but also school efficiency and taxpayers’ return on investment.

Barriers to Online and Blended Learning

In addition to implementation challenges that will be addressed later on in this report, there are several factors that hinder the development of online and blended learning programs.  Picciano et. al. (2011a) found that a small number of districts hesitated to introduce blended learning programs both due to “restrictive federal, state, or local laws or policies” (p. 130).  Other administrators cited a lack of human capital in terms of technological and online teaching pedagogical skills.  Without federal or statewide grant programs covering the initial costs of preparing for online and blended courses, districts are short on the capabilities required to implement online programs.

Inadequate funding – both for teacher professional development and to purchase technological infrastructure – compounded with uncertainty regarding the sustainability of programs financed according to student attendance, both in terms of district contributions as well as the ambiguous resulting effects an online program would cause on the supply and demand of teacher labor markets.  Nevertheless, online and blended learning programs have increasingly been developed throughout the country, as demonstrated by reviewing annual editions of Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Blended Learning, a seminal review of online and blended programs released annually since 2003.

Policy Design & Formulation

Background: Online and Blended Learning in Utah

            The 2013 Keeping Pace report identifies Utah as a national leader of online and blended learning (Watson et. al., 2013 see also Parker, 2013, April 2).  According to Keeping Pace, Utah offers student choice at both a school and course level through four fully online charter schools, a fully online public Utah Electronic High School, and through the newly developed  Statewide Online Education Program. Keeping Pace identifies Utah’s efforts as, “among the first and best-known course choice programs in the country” (p. 150).  Despite this attention, Utah’s SOEP remains small.  Total enrollment for the 2012-2013 school year served 1,279 course enrollments to only 664 unique students.  However, the Electronic High School served 10,308 course enrollments in the same period, rendering the public school’s course choice program significantly more popular (Watson et. al, 2013).

Setting the Agenda: Formulating Policy in Utah

            Given Utah’s existing access to online and blended courses, the process of developing the SOEP aimed to expand opportunities beyond those offered by traditional public institutions.  Salt Lake Tribune journalists Lisa Schencker and Ray Parker chronicled the SOEP’s journey through the state legislature, with various contributions from writers at The Deseret News, and The Daily Herald offering alternative perspectives.

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson, a Republican representing the Draper district, sponsored the original bill in the state legislature to create the SOEP.  Stephenson argued to other senators, “I urge you to set our children free.  Allow them to take more online courses and serve their needs rather than serving the needs of institutions” (Schencker, 2011, February 18).  By creating an infrastructure for authorizing private institutions to deliver courses, Stephenson’s bill expanded student choice beyond public institutions, a controversial policy in education circles and public education advocates.

An initial vote failed 13-10-6 to send the bill to the Utah House of Representatives.  But although some opponents were vocally opposed to the bill, labeling it as a “school voucher bill,” Democratic Senator Karen Morgan cautioned only against the cost of the proposal and offered that, “maybe this is something we shouldn’t do this year” (Schencker, 2011, March 6).  Optimistic editorials were soon published in The Deseret News, a major daily paper based in Salt Lake City, and Stephenson revised the bill and redoubled awareness of the program’s perceived benefits prior to introducing it again for a vote (see Horn, 2011, March 2; Daw, 2011, July 24; and Odell, 2012, June 16).  A later vote passed the Senate 17-12-0, moved on to the House where it passed 48-27-0, and was signed by the Governor on March 30, 2011 (S.B. 65, 2011).  Stephenson amended S.B. 65 to expand the regulations of the SOEP in Senate Bill 178, which easily passed through the state legislature and was signed by the Governor on March 20, 2012 (S.B. 178, 2012).

Opponents of the bill feared the unintended consequences of SOEP.  Stakeholders were concerned with harming public school systems by transferring public funds to private organizations, the logistical challenges of providing a location to supervise students completing online coursework during their normal hours at brick-and-mortar schools, and the implications for public schools when an influx of students decide to drop courses in September in favor of alternative online courses on school finance, which typically is prepared months in advance (Farmer, 2011, June 15).

Tami Pyfer, a representative of District 1 on the Utah State Board of Education and Clinical Instructor of Special Education and Rehabilitation at Utah State University, speaking prior to the passage of S.B. 178, noted that S.B. 65 actually limited student choice by capping the number of courses students may take.  For every course students enrolled for through SOEP, they would have to drop a course at their traditional school (Pyfer, 2011, September 23).  Senator Stephenson noted that the provision was included in order to manage the costs of SOEP, but adapted it in S.B. 178 to allow the number of courses students may take to gradually increase over the next several years (S.B. 178, 2012).

S.B. 178 also differentiated the cost of each course a student takes.  Whereas districts initially would credit online course providers with $727 per course, S.B. 178 initially set the price of courses between $400 to $700 depending on the type of class, but Stephenson compromised to allow districts to negotiate the costs of each course with authorized online providers in order to solidify support to pass the bill (see Schencker, 2012, February 22 and Schencker, 2012, March 2).

Interestingly, a bill originating in the Utah House called for the establishment of a state-wide voucher program for students.  Under House Bill 123, a pilot program would be established to fund “savings accounts” for students to use toward their education on a course-choice level at authorized public, charter, private, and online institutions.  The bill’s sponsor, Representative John Dougall, supported the measure in terms of transparency of funds spent on education, but the bill failed to clear the House, losing a vote 26-46 (Hesterman, 2012, March 6).

Although in-depth descriptions of the policy process are largely limited to press reporting and floor speeches, the ultimate format of the SOEP in its current existence is more straightforward.

Summary: The Statewide Online Education Program

            Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program complements the wide array of online learning policies already established in the state, as referenced above.  S.B. 65, the bill that initially created the system and S.B. 178, which slightly amended the program, established an infrastructure for educational agencies authorized by the Utah Board of Education to deliver online courses to students across the state (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may choose individual courses to take through SOEP, and those courses replace requirements they would otherwise complete within their traditional school district (Watson et. al., 2013).  Provider agencies may be programs created by public LEAs or may be provided by outside third parties, as long as the agency is approved by the LEA (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Students may currently only enroll for a maximum of two credits per year through SOEP – unless they elect to pay out-of-pocket for courses – but that figure increases annually over the next five years and students (Murin, 2011).

The SOEP is provided an annual appropriation of $250,000 from the Utah State Legislature to sustain the infrastructure and support staff.  Funding typically allocated to students’ local education agency (LEA) through local tax dollars follows them to the provider of any online courses they take through SOEP.  The costs of each course are between $400 and $700, with the exact price negotiated between the traditional school district and the authorized providing agency.

Provider agencies receive half of the funding when students enroll in the course and receive the balance when students successfully complete the course.  There are specific stipulations regarding the amount of time students may take to complete a course. Agencies receive only 80% of the total negotiated price if students fail to complete the coursework within an agreed upon time frame.  This deadline is typically congruent with traditional class schedules of roughly nine months for a full-year, one-credit course, and four months for a one-semester, half-credit course (Watson et. al, 2013).

Policy Effects

            It is too early to generalize the effects of Utah’s SOEP to form broader conclusions regarding statewide course choice programs.  Indeed, measuring student outcomes can arguably only produce reliable comparisons once the program is fully implemented, which won’t be for several years.  Even then, researchers and policymakers will likely find themselves arguing the classic nature versus nurture debate of educational choice: Does course and/or school choice increase student achievement or are the students who choose naturally better-equipped to achieve higher?  An expansive 2010 meta-analysis completed by the Department of Education found that online learning, particularly blended learning, has statistically significant positive effects on student achievement, but this review did not include the element of course choice (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).  Barbour (2010) similarly notes that,

“while online learning may allow for educational improvements such as high levels of learner motivation, high quality learning opportunities or improvement in student outcomes, it certainly did not guarantee any of these potential benefits would be realized” (p. 7).

These questions and more can’t be answered until the nuanced details of SOEP and other online learning policies in Utah are fully implemented and subsequently analyzed from an academic perspective, as the current literature on Utah is limited to private institutions and local newspaper testimonies.  Still, there are a number of evident preliminary outcomes that future studies might consider.

            Utah has set a precedent for public choice on a course level.  By offering these courses entirely with public tax dollars, no additional cost is accrued to students.  This allows students to make individual course choices which in turn pressures schools to compete on a lower level for students.  Whereas traditional choice models pushed schools to be more attractive as a whole to students, Utah’s SOEP course choice program pressures schools and outside agencies to offer individual courses that entice student interest.  The effects of this shift on student achievement, teacher labor markets, and the financial sustainability of public schools have yet to be realized.

As previously mentioned above, Utah’s SOEP program empowers students with diverse course offerings that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them in their traditional brick-and-mortar schools.  Teachers working in high-need fields, offering foreign languages, college preparation courses, or Advanced Placement courses can now provide geographic equity to students in Utah.  For example, Brigham Young University offers courses for college credit through the BYU Independent Study Program, which can be transferred from high schools to cover coursework at any college accredited by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools (Watson et. al., 2013).  Similarly, The Juilliard School began offering music education courses to students through the SOEP, expanding world class instruction to rural residents in Utah free of charge (Parker, 2013, March 19).  This confirms Picciano’s suggestion that students will form bonds with higher education institutions (2011a).  Whether these relationships transition into increased college attendance is also yet to be measured.

Researchers have also pointed out the potential for online learning to allow traditional schools to transition away from cohort-based organization and instead focus on competency education.  Bailey et. al. (2013a) argues that the traditional “factory model” of education limits students in two fundamental ways: “It holds back students who could be excelling,” and “it moves on students who aren’t ready” (p. 125).  Under competency education models, students advance upon subject mastery rather than on proficiency and seat time.  Their achievement is based on “explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students” (p. 128).  Assessments are used as a tool to diagnose rather learning challenges and students receive “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs” (p. 128).

Researchers point out that competency education does not rely on online learning, but may be easily facilitated through online and blended programs that already allow students to advance as they reach mastery, such as Utah’s SOEP program.  Patrick and Sturgis (2013) importantly note that the terminology associated with competency education varies and has been referred to as “proficiency-based education,” “standards-based education,” and “mastery-education” (p. 5).  Regardless of its terminology, researchers have acknowledged the potential for online and blended learning programs to offer evolutionary changes to traditional education paradigms.

Implementation Issues

The implementation process for Utah’s SOEP remains in progress.  With the amount of credits students may enroll in increasing annually, a more holistic perspective of the program’s implementation must also be analyzed by future researchers.  But much like the effects of SOEP, there are several early points worth noting regarding SOEP’s implementation as well as the implementation of similar online and blended learning programs noted by researchers thus far.

The role of Senator Stephenson in adapting the program to accommodate the concerns of fellow legislators, educators, and community stakeholders shouldn’t be overlooked.  Datnow and Park (2009) note that within the co-construction model of policy implementation, stakeholders and policymakers actively work to design and implement educational policies in ways that benefit specific school environments.  In this way, Stephenson’s response to criticism, and resulting sponsorship of S.B. 178, provided stakeholders with an opportunity to contribute to the policy in a way that would benefit its implementation and ultimately to support educational agencies to deliver high student outcomes.

Muller (2009) offers several general implementation challenges associated with online and blended programs.  In addition to adopting a co-construction mindset during the design and implementation stage of policymaking, educators and policymakers must educate parents about online education and the market of choices available to students.  Also, as new technologies arise – including learning management systems, computer software, and internet-based programs – both educators and policymakers must remain well-informed in order to provide the most effective learning opportunities to students.  Muller also notes that funding issues can hamper implementation, but the sustainability of Utah’s SOEP has yet to be systemically analyzed.

Bailey et. al. (2013d) explains that schools can take several steps toward implementing blended learning including: placing computers in classrooms, delivering a digital curriculum, experiment with flipped classroom strategies, increase access to computer labs and tablet devices.  But importantly, although “these strategies may be beneficial…if they do not change instructional practices, schedules, relationships, and resource allocations, they are not considered blended learning (p. 19).  Bailey et. al. (2013d) also include a set of practices to assist schools in transitioning from some of the strategies mentioned above to fully online or blended environments, often based on competency education.

Including successful testimonies from around the country, Bailey et. al. (2013d) include a variety of extensive frameworks for schools to adapt.  Each plan includes strategies which address challenges made to a school’s infrastructure, broadband capabilities, network equipment and management, electrical power supply, facilities management, and hardware and software acquisition.  Furthermore, schools must address challenges posed by professional development demands as well as the existing school culture, which in some cases can hinder policy implementation.  Bailey’s implementation guide provides an in-depth primer on issues schools face when implementing online programs, including several ways schools can overcome these challenges.  The insights provided by the guide are highly recommended for policymakers, researchers, and educational leaders alike.

Policy Recommendations

As legislated by S.B 65 and S.B 178, Utah should continually reflect on the SOEP implementation process and make changes as necessary to address financial and academic concerns that may arise (S.B. 65, 2011; and S.B. 178, 2012).  Researchers and educators must also analyze the SOEP and reflect on its effectiveness for student achievement, as well as its financial sustainability, and its impact on the traditional public school system.

Policymakers should introduce online and blended learning policies which support the transition to competency education.  Under these models, students are more likely to achieve mastery of subjects rather than advance merely as a product of their seat time.  Policies that adopt a co-construction approach to implementation and provide schools with flexibility to fit their students’ needs are most likely to deliver those outcomes (iNACOL, 2012).

Providing incentives, especially state and federal grant programs to districts that adopt online and blended learning models will catalyze the transition.  iNACOL (2012) suggests these incentives are translated to the course level, allowing students the optimal choice.  Funding structures that simply transfer funding from one educational entity to another allow this transition to be more financially viable, although future studies must analyze the long-term sustainability of such approaches.

Lips (2010) offers a number of general actions educators and policymakers can take to support online and blended learning programs.  Lips calls for every state to develop a statewide virtual school, enabling course choice on a supplementary or full-time basis.  Lips also suggests expanding hybrid (blended) learning programs to support learning out of the classroom.  Specifically, districts should share best practices with each other regarding how to implement digital curricula into existing programs.  Importantly, Lips notes that federal policymakers should amend and revise federal policies to support online learning by providing control and flexibility to state education agencies.


             Online and blended learning programs such as Utah’s SOEP offer a prospective glance into an inevitable future.  Although some states have forged ahead of others in this educational opportunity, as technological infrastructure and awareness of existing programs continues to increase online and blended programs will become available to more and more students.  These programs have numerous benefits – from increasing access to equitable learning opportunities to balancing district budget sheets – but uncertainty about the long-term challenges to implementation sustainability continue to hinder broader involvement across the country.

Future researchers must analyze these outcomes including comparing design techniques, implementation procedures, and measures taken to adapt policies over time to fit the needs of students.  Researchers must also carefully design studies to compare student achievement within online and blended course choice programs against their peers in an effort to determine the most effective learning structures and environments for a given population of students.



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the age of technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Vol. 26. pp. 18-27.

Datnow, A. & Park, V. (2009) Conceptualizing policy implementation: large-scale reform in an era

of complexity. In G. Sykes, B. Schneider, & D. Plank (Eds.), Handbook of education policy

research (pp.348-361). New York: Routledge.

Daw, B. M. (2011, July 24). My view: Online learning is the new player in the education arena. Deseret

News. Retrieved from

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Excellence in Education.

Downes, S. (2004). Educational blogging. Educause Review, September/October 2004 edition. pp. 14-


Farmer, M. (2011, June 15). New online learning law full of ‘unintended consequences’. Deseret News.

Retrieved from

Farmer, M. (2011, July 3). State gears up for new online education program that begins this fall.

Deseret News. Retrieved from

Felix, J. P. (2007). Edublogging: Instruction for the Digital Age Learner (Doctoral Thesis). University of

California, San Diego.

Halverson, R. and Smith, A. (2009). How new technologies have (and have not) changed teaching

and learning in schools. Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, Vol 26 (2). pp. 49-54.

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Horn, M. B. (2011, March 2). Michael B. Horn: Utah online education proposal would expand

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Categories: Education in the 21st Century, News & Current Issues, Online Learning, Reform Policies, Writing Samples | Leave a comment

25 Ideas for Online Learning Success

A conversation with three veterans:
25 Ideas for Online Learning Success – K12

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Education Week: Managing the Digital District

EdWeek recently published this 28-page special report on K-12 education technology, available here:

Managing the Digital District – Education Week Special Report – Oct, 2013

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5 minutes of inspiration from Ashton Kutcher

Anyone who misses this is really overlooking a golden piece of inspiration to share with students.

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Can Dutch iPad Schools Revolutionize Education?by ORION JONES

Very exciting model to adopt!

By Orion Jones

“Can Dutch iPad Schools Revolutionize Education? | IdeaFeed | Big Think”

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20 Twitter Hashtags Every Teacher Should Know About

More awesome information coming from edudemic!

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Online Resources for Teachers

I came across some older stuff worth sharing.  Check out the following links!

Best Websites for Teaching & Learning 2012

-American Association of School Librarians


The 100 Best Video Sites for Educators



7 Education ideas from unlikely places



X marks the spot: This week’s TEDx talks all about education




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“Computer Problems in Three States Hamper Student Proficiency Tests –”

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FORBES: MOOCS are no Education Panacea, but Here’s What Can Make Them Work, Wayne Smutz

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POLITICO: Cyber Education Key to Security, by Janet Napolitano

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The Khan Academy and the future of education

I don’t totally agree with the opening tone of the article, but this is still an important perspective. “FAZLUR RAHMAN: Bold approach opens new education doors » San Angelo Standard Times Mobile”

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Petition: We demand President Obama and Congress accept Climate Change as an enemy of the people.

Declare War On Climate Change. We demand President Obama and Congress accept Climate Change as an enemy of the people.

We, the people, demand the President of the United States and it’s legislative body recognize Climate Change as great and Grave a threat to this nation as they would any other aggressive enemy. We demand that the President and Congress act against Climate Change as they have acted against Saddam Husein, Bin Laden, and Hitler for that matter. We demand a National Energy Policy that quickly begins to ween us off of Carbon Based fuels and expedites the inevitable and necessary transition to Clean Energy. We demand that our leaders act on the recommendations coming from an overwhelming majority of the scientific community to halt Climate Change and save the lives of untold millions. 

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Visual Texts for your Social Studies Classroom (This post/album is updated WEEKLY)

Note: These are VERY provocative, discretion is advised.  May be used for multiple purposes. Contains quotes, cartoons, photos, and more. Enjoy

Click here to view the album.

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Tariq Ali on Americentrism

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Endless Possibilities

The following image was recently posted on a Facebook page I follow.  As you can see from this example, the internet has created an entirely additional layer to instruction.  A student asks a question to almost 60,000 listeners are receives 263  (generally helpful) responses within twenty-four hours.  How have you empowered your students using this phenomena?


Technology & Education


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NPR: New NASA Images Show The Earth’s Electric Light Show

A recent article published by NPR includes twelve photographs of Earth at night taken from space, which are potentially excellent methods to talk about geography and global development in a Social Studies classroom.

Find the article here:

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News About the US Dept. of Education

Check out:

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News About Education and Schools

Check Out:
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Opinion Articles

Check out:

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